Friday, March 22, 2013
March 22, 2013: Spring in America: The Mayflower and the Maypole
[As spring gets ready to spring, a series on the season in American culture. Add your vernal associations and responses for a blooming weekend post!]
On two contrasting images and narratives of spring for America’s earliest English arrivals.
Sylvia Plath’s sonnet ”Mayflower,” another Plath poem that should be more widely known than it is, captures quite eloquently, through an extended metaphor connecting the ship to an actual flowering plant, the quality I most admire in the Pilgrims: their perseverance, in the face of some of the most daunting circumstances (including but in no way limited to Cape Cod in December!) to have faced any fledgling American community. As Plath indicates, their faith (particularly in the concept of Providence) provided one critical element to that perseverance; as I’ve written elsewhere in this space, Tisquantum (or Squanto) provided another. But in any case, I agree wholeheartedly with Plath that, like the may flower after which they named their ship, the Pilgrims embodied “how best beauty’s born of hardihood.”
That flower, as Plath envisions it at least, was the bud of the hawthorn plant—and, not quite coincidentally, it is a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne (who was throughout his life and career hugely interested in his Puritan ancestors) which provides our clearest illustration of a very different side to May for that fledgling New England community. As fictionalized in Hawthorne’s “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” (1836)—and as documented in William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation—one of the earliest splinter groups from the Puritan communities was that led by Thomas Morton, the man who came to be known as “the pagan Pilgrim” for his embrace of a far livelier and more celebratory set of practices. Those celebrations were exemplified by the May-Pole that Morton and his followers erected in their town of Merry-Mount (Mt. Wollaston), and it was perhaps the appropriation of this be-flowered “pagan” symbol that led to the full condemnations of Morton and his community by Bradford and his fellow orthodox Puritans.
So two images of spring: as a beautiful, hard-earned reward for enduring the winter; or as a time of excess and luxury, of plenty and its resulting vices. And two corresponding images of the Puritans: as a persistent and hardy community, blossoming into American fullness after making it through their first and hardest winter; or as an overly dour and intolerant bunch, suspicious of any deviation from their norms and most especially of anyone, anywhere, having a good time. The truth? As so often on this blog, all of the above, or more exactly a combination of them all that hopefully leads us toward something more and different and stronger. Spring, like any season and experience, can indeed bring out the worst in us (whether we see that worst as carnival or condemnation); but it can also allow us to wonder at the best, of who we are and of the world we live in. There’s value, I believe, in engaging with each and all of those sides.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So how would you engage with the season? Thoughts on this or any of the week’s posts? Other takes on spring in America?